A: The decision to divorce, especially when children are involved, is one of the most difficult choices a person can face. Divorce is not pretty. It adds stress to the lives of each spouse, their families, friends and their children. Unfortunately, divorce tends to bring out the worst in people. Hurt feelings and anger often take precedence over doing what is truly best for the kids. Because of this, I always encourage couples to do everything they can to work on their issues and challenge themselves to do the work to repair their marriages before choosing divorce. Go to counseling. Read books. Talk with friends and loved ones. Work at it. When a marriage is healthy and the parents are working together towards the long-term health and happiness of the marriage and the family, it is always better for the kids.
Having said that, there is no reason to believe that staying together at any cost is better for children than divorcing. In fact, when parents who are unhappy together and engage in unhealthy relationship habits stay together "for the kids" it can often do more harm than good. The behaviors you display in your home will set the stage for how your children will behave as adults. They learn what it means to be married, how to be a husband or wife and how to effectively (or ineffectively) deal with conflict in a relationship. I often hear people say things like, "But we don't do it in front of them," or "They don't really see what's going on." I assure you that these people are mistaken. Over the course of day-in/day-out, year after year, these messages accumulate, and take root, increasing the likelihood that your kids will repeat the very same patterns they have seen in their home growing up. The good news is that when couples do decide to get divorced and they handle their divorce in a mature and collaborative way, there is plenty of reason to believe that the children can be just fine in the long run. In other words, it is not necessarily divorce itself that determines whether or not your kids will be ok, but rather how each adult behaves during and after the divorce. Remember, divorce is not an isolated event - it unfolds over many years. Parents who can remain civil, avoid bad-mouthing and blaming each other, work together to create unified parenting strategies and give their children consistent time, attention and reassurance have a very good chance of seeing their kids grow up just as happy and healthy as those of healthy intact couples. Ultimately, the bottom line is this: unhappy parents do not tend to raise happy children. And unhealthy relationships that "stay together for the kids" when the marriage is destructive tend to produce children who have unhealthy relationships as adults. For an enlightening perspective on divorce and the pros and cons as they relate to children, check out The Truth About Children and Divorce by Robert Emery and For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered by E. Mavis Hetherington.